Not Doing Wrong:
A Talk on Buddhist Morality
By Eido Michael Luetchford
November 1997

Most religions have clear ideas of right and wrong. Christianity, for example believes in the existence of two moral areas; a world of right (heaven) and a world of wrong (hell). Although people from Christian cultures may not believe in the actual existence of two worlds any more, as they did in the Middle Ages, they still believe clearly that there are two kinds of actions; good actions and bad actions.
Religions usually lay down moral criteria to guide believers into good and away from bad. That is, people believe that actions can be pre-judged as being good or bad. And they believe that we can clearly delineate the two. Christianity has the 10 commandments as the basis for good and bad action, but in practice, Christian societies have developed idealized ethical systems and guidelines to teach people what is right and what is wrong. It is not an exaggeration to say that one of the aims of Christianity is to eliminate bad from the earth and to leave only good. However, from a Buddhist point of view this would seem to be a fruitless exercise. Buddhists believe that reality or Dharma is beyond concepts of good and bad; that is, it contains both good and bad un-separated, in a pre-conceptual state. To try to remove half of reality would seem to be by definition unachievable. More than that, the conscious effort to try to remove half of reality is also a kind of affirmation of the existence of just that part that you are intending to remove.
Buddhism does not say that there is no morality; it affirms the central importance of morals and ethical behavior in all areas of life. However, its approach to moral behavior is very different from the teachings of a Christian society. Although Buddhism believes in right action, it insists that right action is not the same as our concept of right action; that moral action does not always match our conceived notions of morality. The reason is that Buddhism believes that only this place and this moment are real, and all else - past and future - are not real existence. It therefore follows that the only place where conduct can be right or wrong is here and now. So Buddhism emphasizes that right and wrong are concerned with the present moment, here and now. Acting morally means acting right at this very moment. Acting right at this moment is the only true morality. Of course we can discuss right and wrong as abstract concepts, but those abstractions are always divorced from the real situation in front of us now, and so they are partial and can never be a complete guide to our action in the present.
Buddhism does give guidelines as to what good conduct is in the form of the Buddhist Precepts. However, the Buddhist precepts are not meant as rigid rules that must be followed at the risk of committing a sin, as for instance, the Christian Ten Commandments are. The Buddhist Precepts are guidelines as to what right conduct is. But in actual situations our conduct is decided by the state of our body/mind in the moment of acting, not by the Precepts alone. We try sincerely to follow the Precepts, but if we break one of the Precepts, Buddhism urges us to regain the balanced state and act right in the present, rather than to pay penance for past bad conduct, which has passed and can never be changed.
Buddhism says that whether or not we can act morally or right in this moment does not depend on our concept or belief of what it right and what is wrong, but on the state of our body and mind at this present moment. Of course we cannot say that discussion of morals has no value, but discussing morals and being moral are different, and being moral does not rely on discussion of morals but on our state at the present moment.
If we are a little off-balance, or disturbed for some reason, we sometimes act in a way that we would not normally act in, for instance we do something that excites or disturbs us. When we act in this way, we excite or disturb ourselves first and foremost. There are many instances of this in our daily lives, and most of the time we do not notice. For instance we get slightly irritated about something (dislike), or we are strongly attracted to something (like). Usually we just carry on with our normal life, and our mood or state swings a little from aggressive to passive, from like to dislike, and we recover our balance as the day moves on. Sometimes our wobbling is large enough for us to notice that we are excited or angry or whatever, and occasionally we notice clearly that our own state is disturbed.
Having a disturbed state is connected with an imbalance in our autonomic nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stronger, we are usually passive, and amenable, not prone to argument, but prone to desire. When the sympathetic nervous state is stronger, we are usually aggressive and idealistic, prone to argument, and heedless of physical comfort.
The mechanism is not yet fully known, but there is also likely to be a "feedback effect"; that is aggressive conduct may further stimulate our sympathetic nervous system and strong desire may further stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system. This is connected also with chemical changes to hormones and endocrine levels in our blood, and in other parts of the body, and those changed chemical levels stay with us for some time. So if, for example, I have too much to drink, Not only do I get drunk, I also feel different from normal for up to a day afterwards. Or if I have a quarrel and lose my temper (cause), I feel disturbed, and the disturbed state stays with me for some time (effect). In this way cause and effect extends into the mental area from the physical area. Our physical state affects our mental state and vice versa. In fact Buddhism says that they are two sides of the same thing. Body and mind are one whole.
So if I act in a way that is not balanced, I disturb myself, and this disturbance stays in my body/mind. When we notice that we have disturbed ourselves in this way, we sometimes feel that we have acted wrongly. "Oh I shouldn't have drunk so much," or "I shouldn't have shouted at that person," or similar. We feel that we have done wrong. When we feel like that, we can usually find another side in us which says, "No I was right. It's not my fault," and similar. Or a part of us that denies that there is anything wrong with doing what we did. These two opposing viewpoints; guilt and denial, often cause us to feel ambivalent about our actions, not being able to see or decide clearly whether our action was "right" or "wrong."
In order to explain the Buddhist view on the question of right and wrong, Master Dogen wrote a chapter in Shobogenzo called Shoaku-makusa - "Not Doing Wrong." In it he quotes an ancient Buddhist verse that says that doing right, not doing wrong is the teaching of all the Buddhas; that if we do right, our consciousness will become clear (mind will become pure). In the chapter he says that not doing wrong is simple to say, simple to understand, but extremely difficult to do. He quotes a story about a priest who asks his master what is the Great Intention of the Buddha-Dharma. The master replies not to commit wrongs. To practice the many kinds of right. The priest replies that even a child of three can express such a simple principle, expecting the Great Intention to be something far more sophisticated and complicated. The master replies that although a child of three can express it, even an old man of eighty cannot practice it.
And Master Dogen asserts that not doing wrong is not a matter of moral discussion, but of moral action here and now. He says that "Wrong" is just "Not Doing." By this he means that only here and now do we have the choice of action. That here and now we should act right. The choice of action is intuitive and not conceptualized in the instant. When we are balanced, we act. When we are not balanced we act. When we act we make ourselves balanced. In the moment there is no time to think about "right" or "wrong"; there is only action at the present moment. When we act right, we maintain the peaceful state of balance, and when we act wrong we disturb ourselves.
Although Buddhism says that moral action is not a matter of discussion, but of our action here and now, explaining the situation is helpful. It helps us to understand the simple situation of cause and effect, and how it extends, not only through the physical world, but also into the area of morals. If our conduct is right, we act in accord with everything around us and we do not disturb ourselves - we follow the rule of the Universe. If our conduct is wrong, we disturb ourselves and lose the balanced state. We lose our "peace of mind." But because acting in the present is the basis of balance, it is by acting that we "redeem" ourselves. We can then forget our bad conduct in the past and enter the state of balance in the present.
Master Dogen emphasizes that the balanced state is a state at the moment of the present, and so, even when we feel our conduct is not balanced, if we do something wholeheartedly, completely; if we act, we can get our balance in the moment of the present. And he says that the best way to get our balance in the present is to practice Zazen. There are so many ways that we can act sincerely, and all of those actions are to arrive at balance in the present moment. But the practice of Zazen is so clear, so simple, so easy to rely on that we adopt it as our standard method. It is salvation. It is the way to realize the true nature of moral action by practicing moral action in the present moment.
Q. I wonder if there is a contradiction here or if it is more of a paradox: you say that "If we are a little off-balance or disturbed… we sometimes act in a way that we would not normally act in… When we act in this way, we excite or disturb ourselves first and foremost." And yet you say also that "When we act we make ourselves balanced" and "…because acting in the present is the basis of balance, it is by acting that we 'redeem' ourselves." I guess what you are saying here is that by acting "right" we get our balance back. But how can we act right when we are not balanced? Is it through our choice/freewill that exists at the present moment? Doesn't that then require some force of will (or is it the intellect?) to go against our unbalanced state?
A. What you say about a contradiction or paradox is true. There is a paradox. The paradox is: how can we ever recover in the present moment from our bad conduct in the past, meaning any moments before this present moment. I think that the answer to the paradox is only to be found in actual experience. We do in fact recover. If I try to analyze it, I feel that I recover through two things: one is by my subsequent actions in subsequent present moments, and the other is by practicing Zazen. But the recovery that happens naturally through subsequent actions in subsequent moments is fairly slow; it takes a while. Whereas when I practice Zazen, I actually feel that my past conduct dissolves into thin air. It disappears. I feel that I am directly putting myself right. But if we look at it as a process, there are degrees. If I am very disturbed then it takes a lot of moments of everyday acting to come back to normal. And it takes a lot of sitting to recover my peaceful state. But the point is I believe in a "method of redemption," a method of putting myself right. Although I do not feel any intention while practicing Zazen to redeem myself, that is how I can best describe it. I do not practice Zazen in order to put myself right, but I feel that Zazen IS putting myself right. So coming back to your original question, How can we act in an unbalanced way and disturb ourselves, but yet act in the next moment to restore our balanced state? The only answer I can find is that we actually do it. We DO sometimes act and disturb ourselves, and we DO call that kind of action "wrong." And we CAN act in the very next moment and regain something of our balance. We are doing it all the time. As a process, it is best summed up as "wobbling" around the balanced state. But if we try to describe what happens in detail, it is a paradox. It is not logically consistent. In Shoaku-makusa, Master Dogen says "When the Dharma is in balance, wrong is in balance." In present action, there is nothing separated from reality that can be called "wrong." Master Dogen says that we are always free in the present moment, and that freedom is complete freedom to act. But at the same time, our action is influenced by our physical state, which is carried over from past moments. So we are not free, we are bound by cause and effect. So we are free, and at the same time bound, in the present moment. This is the paradox. The solution to the paradox is not an intellectual solution; it is in real concrete action at the moment of the present. At the moment of acting, all discrimination between right and wrong disappears. Judgment always comes after the event.